The Alchemy of Galena
A town that turned lead into tourist gold.
Nature of Illinois
The town of Galena in the far northwest corner of the state is in Illinois but not of it in any way. Long a backwater, it transformed itself into a tourist destination and more recently a retirement haven for affluent exiles from places like Chicago. It and Nauvoo and Bishop Hill are perhaps the most interesting places in downstate Illinois.
This portrait was assigned by the fine magazine founded to help advance the work of Illinois's fine scientific surveys, and thus has a strong natural history focus.
Altered very slightly from the published version to enhance readability.
Galena, promises a tourism brochure, "isn't like the rest of Illinois." For once the brochures do not exaggerate. This restored Jo Daviess County town is a fascinating mix of 19th century architecture and 20th century recreation, the home of the nation's first mineral boom whose citizens mastered their own conjurors' trick and turned lead into bricks and tourist cash. Galena is also a textbook illustration of the opportunities and the risks of basing local economies on exploitable natural resources.
The alchemy of the Lead Rush
Galena was founded in the 1820s on the banks of the Fever (later renamed Galena) River less than three miles from where that stream enters the Mississippi. Its real founding, however, may be said to have begun millions of years earlier when mineral-rich brines deposited lead and zinc sulfides in the fractures of Ordivician rocks in the area. Lead sulfide—"Galena" to the Romans—is the ore from which the metal is smelted, and thousands of tons of it accumulated in cracks and crevices hereabouts, some quite near the surface.
The Sauk, Winnebago, and Fox Indians all mined lead from deposits in the upper Mississippi Valley, making ornaments from the malleable gray metal or trading it to the French. To most whites, lead was a work-a-day metal used in paints and food tins. But lead also was used to make musket ball and cannon shot, the lead for which had to be imported to the U.S. until 1822 for lack of indigenous supplies. The discovery of minable deposits of lead in the upper Mississippi thus excited not just get-rich-quick prospectors but federal authorities. Lead mining became one of the fledgling nation's first defense industries.
While it may have lacked the romance of subsequent mining rushes in California and Alaska, the "lead rush" which began at Galena in the 1820s was just as frenzied. The town was the shipping and supply point for the Federal Landmine District which reached into Wisconsin and which at its peak may have contained as many as 10,000 men digging ore. In 1845, when production was at its peak, 53 million pounds of lead were shipped out of Galena, more than four-fifths of the entire U.S. output.
Mining at first required little more than a pick, some blasting powder, and a mule. The easiest diggings were from the "float" deposits left in unconsolidated surface layers; some pastures around Galena are still pockmarked by such diggings. Deeper "flat and pitch" deposits had to be reached by shafts dug into bedrock for distances of up to 60 feet, which was as far as man could hoist ore buckets without the help of a steam engine. Eventually, even deeper veins of lead ore, and, later, zinc were tapped as mines and machines got bigger.
The ores at first seemed rich beyond exhaustion. "It seems not unlikely that these mines may supply the world," wrote one Galenan with the timeless optimism of the boomtowner. But the deeper one had to dig for it, the more expensive Galena's lead became. Metals markets are notoriously unstable, and even in its robust early days Galena suffered slumps. The town's fortunes were usually revived by war (a lot of Confederate soldiers were buried with Galena lead in their bodies), with federal price incentives sparking a boomlet among independent operators as recently as World War II.
Lead was not the only valuable mineral mined in them thar hills. Those ancient cracks were also filled with sphalerite, the parent ore of zinc. "It was a nuisance to most miners until the Civil War," explains Daryl Watson of the Galena/Jo Daviess County Historical Society. A new processing technique made recovery of zinc profitable and a new boom was born. (Some old lead mine tailing piles were even re-mined for the zinc they contained.) "Sometime after the Civil War, the value of zinc mining in Galena exceeded that of lead for the first time," notes Watson. "By the late 1800s, more than 80 percent of the area's entire mine output was zinc."
The last modern mines outside Galena such as the Eagle Pitcher and the Blackjack mine did not close until the 1970s (At its peak, Watson estimates, the tailing pile at the Eagle Pitcher site would have qualified as the highest point in Illinois.) By then metals has not anchored the local economy for decades. Price, not supply, caused mining's demise. "There is still ore in the ground up there," explains Jim Bradbury. Bradbury, now retired, worked in Galena in the 1950s for the Illinois Geological Survey, studying drilling records (a principal means of prospecting) and mapping the local rocks. "But there are no big ore bodies that anybody knows about."
But Galena was never just a mining town. The miners arrived before the farmers and the sawyers and the cobblers, and for years all of the food and equipment needed to run the camps had to be shipped in. Mining miners was as profitable as mining lead, and those profits supplied capital for other, more durable enterprises. "Galena reached its apex as a commercial center in the 1850s," Watson says, a decade after lead production peaked. The town had a monopoly on upper Mississippi steamboat trade, and was a major port for shipments to St. Paul and St. Louis.
That trade floated on the river. The Galena in the heyday of the small upper-river steamers was at least 200 feet wide off the town's docks. The river eventually took its name from the town just as the town had taken its name from the ore, but the town took its location and its livelihood from the river. Galena sits as far up the Galena (and as close to the lead diggings) as steamers could dependably travel. "Galena was the doorway to the mining district," says local historian Dick Vincent. "If it wasn't for the river, Galena would be just like the other lead mining communities in the area."
Its merchants were quick to exploit the river's access to the Mississippi and thence to St. Louis and St. Paul. The town became the shipping and wholesaling center for the whole burgeoning region. The coming of the railroads in the 1850s, however, took cargo from the steamboats and eventually business from Galena, leading some locals, then and now, to blame Galena's subsequent long economic slumber on the railroads. But even if steamboating hadn't died, Galena's future as a river port would have been doubtful. The villain wasn't the steam locomotive but the ax.
In 1820, Jo Daviess County was nearly all trees. (Only a handful of spots in all of Illinois had so much of their land in forest.) Wood was the petroleum of the early 19th century. Steamboat boilers were fired with wood. So were the lead smelters. Galena's lead boom in fact depended as much on plentiful local supplies of wood as it depended on plentiful lead ore. "Even in the Indian period, tremendous numbers of trees were cut to run the smelters," explains Daryl Watson. "The early superintendent of the lead district prohibited the indiscriminate cutting of trees, ordering the best ones reserved for smelting. That suggests that even then there were not a lot of good trees left."
Farmers felled trees, too. Local agriculture expanded with population, so that the value of farm products produced in the area exceeded that of lead as early as 1850. The combined effects of smelting and farming on the forests were devastating. Old photos show whole hillsides so denuded that they resembled (in Watson's words) goat pastures in Greece.
Thus exposed, the hillsides above the Galena eroded badly. Even in 1839, local steamboat captains were warning that the Galena was silting up. The stream had to be dredged that year and again in 1856; by the Civil War it was already reduced to what Watson calls "a pathetic little stream" which was more mud than water in summer. More dredging, even eventual construction of a lock and dam downstream, could not restore the river as a dependable navigable stream.
A river which didn't have room for a steamboat didn't have room for flood waters either. Flooding was common. When the Market House was built in 1846 on the alluvial terrace between Commerce and Water streets, the entire block was filled in and raised by nine feet, although even that proved to be not enough. The worst flood, in 1937, reached higher, and damage to low-lying buildings was substantial. Restoration of the town's historic buildings could not begin in earnest, in fact, until 1951, when the present system of levees and flood gates was installed.
Today the Galena River ambles between grassy banks, and boys sit fishing on the spot where steamboats used to churn. The only boats on the river are canoes, rented by tourists for a jaunt downriver to the Mississippi.
The commodious warehouses and other commercial structures which still line Galena's riverbank are reminders of the volume of goods which the river trade once brought to town, just as the hotels and mansions which grace the sides of "Quality Hill" testify to the wealth which moved through the pockets of its citizens. (Galena even owes its claims to its most famous son, Ulysses S. Grant, to trade: Grant found refuge from his failed early career in his family's Galena leather goods store in 1860 when the world still needed store clerks more than Civil War generals.)
Galena's architecture was as grand as its wealth could afford and as pretentious as the pride of its self-made men could imagine. Most of its buildings are stone or brick, the result of a ban on wood construction in 1850 after fires damaged its crowded docks. New buildings went up with each successive economic boom, and each era built in the fashion of its day. Log houses were succeeded by churches, mansions, schools, and public buildings in Greek Revival or Federal styles, which in turn were followed, in overlapping waves, by Italianate, Queen Anne, Second Empire, Gothic Revival, and Romanesque Revival concoctions. Galena's largest mansion, the 1857 Belvedere, has been likened to a Tuscan villa and a wedding cake but probably most deserves the label "Steamboat Gothic." Built for a local steamboat magnate, it looks like a landlocked river palace.
The long economic dormancy into which the town slipped in the century after the Civil War meant that most of its old buildings were not remodeled or replaced but left standing. Most survived, remarkably intact. The result was an outdoor architecture museum, a ghost town of uncharacteristic substance. What had been useless became unique; in 1969, no less than 85 percent of the old town was deemed worthy of listing on the Department of Interior's National Register of Historic Places.
Today dozens of Galena's period buildings have been restored as monuments to its own past. The Customs House which once oversaw the steamboat trade is now the local post office. The old Market House was restored by the State of Illinois as a museum. The former Illinois Center Depot now houses a tourist center. Many houses have been converted to bed & breakfast facilities and guest houses, and shops which once peddled picks and oil lamps now house antique shops, craft studios, and restaurants. And—perhaps most symbolic of Galena's revival as a tourist center—the 1853 DeSoto House hotel on Main Street is now a hotel again after years of hosting such varied tenants as the Illinois Geological Survey field office.
Galena's historic buildings are to a large extent both the means and the ends of its career as a tourist attraction. But those buildings owe much of their charm to their setting. Today's tourism boom, like the mining and shipping booms before it, depends on Galenans' ability to exploit the region's unique natural resources of hills, forest, and water. Galena lies at the southernmost tip of the Wisconsin Driftless Section, a region whose Ordivician limestones and dolomites have been incised by streams into deep valleys. Successive glaciation modified, indeed obliterated the early landscape of much of the rest of Illinois, but the ice never plowed across Galena. The result is a distinctly un-Illinoisan vista of rocky prominence separated by pastoral valleys. Illinois' highest point is nearby; so are some of its most beautiful.
The crumpled-up terrain around Galena was an impediment to progress in horse and wagon days but today it has helped turn Galena into a year-round vacation and resort spot. Illinois's sole downhill ski run is near Galena. The nearby Mississippi offers hunting, fishing, and boating in all seasons; its forested hillsides offer hiking, cross-country skiing, and camping. Galena has become a regional economic center again, this time serving not outlying mines and farms but the marinas, ski lodges, riding stables, campsites, and golf courses which dot the countryside. Galena and environs are seeing another spurt of building, this time in time-share condos and summer houses, and it is again doing trade with faraway places: Stop at any local gas station in summer and you will see cars bearing license plates from Texas or Virginia as well as Illinois, Iowa, and Wisconsin.
Galena, in short, is a boom town again. On certain weekends today its streets are as crowded as they must have been 150 years ago, and local tourism officials are wondering aloud whether booked-up hotels and traffic jams may not be too much of a good thing. Space and unencumbered views can be ruined as quickly as metal ores and forests and rivers. Galena's past is not just a commodity, but a useful warning. ●
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